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An Inconvenient Truth

Heroism Isn't So Heroic in This Acting Tour De Force

Bruce Nelson Plays 23 Characters (With Only One Costume Change).

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 1/21/2009

I Am My Own Wife

By Doug Wright

Through Feb. 22 at Everyman Theatre.

Doug Wright is a character in his own play, I Am My Own Wife. He is the New York playwright who travels to Berlin to interview Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, the real-life legendary transvestite who survived both the Nazis and the Stalinists "in high heels," as Wright puts it. For most of the first act, Wright is clearly enthralled with this sixtysomething man in a plain black dress, a black head scarf, and a double strand of pearls. Believing he has found the gay hero he never had growing up in Texas, Wright eagerly tapes Charlotte's colorful stories about attacking her Nazi father with a rolling pin and selling black-market cuckoo clocks in Communist East Berlin.

At the end of the first act, however, news reports emerge that Charlotte worked for the Stasi, the East Germans' secret police, and Wright begs her to deny them. The playwright doesn't want his icon tarnished. Bruce Nelson, playing Charlotte, smoothes his black skirt across his lady-like, closed knees and sucks in on his cheeks in the universal, matronly gesture of, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." He won't deny the reports, and we in the audience are nearly as devastated as Wright.

It's at this moment that I Am My Own Wife becomes something more than the amusing tale of a flamboyant eccentric. It becomes a knottier, deeper story, a reminder that being a victim is not the same as being a hero, a suggestion that most human beings are too complicated for mere heroism. Suddenly, the same little-old-lady mannerisms that had made Charlotte so endearing in the early going now seem off-putting, as if they were part of a cover-up. Wright doesn't want to believe it, and he keeps offering her alibis. She primly declines them, as if they were sweets offered right before dinner.

The fact that both Charlotte and Wright, plus the other 22 characters in the script, are played by the same actor has earned I Am My Own Wife its reputation as an actor's tour de force. Nelson, one of Baltimore's best actors, is certainly up to the challenge, switching voice, posture, and attitude so sharply that we not only know who is talking at all times, but also care. One moment, he's a sexagenarian transvestite with the thick German accent and bourgeois manners of the Weimar Republic, and the next, he's a baby-boomer Texan turned New Yorker with all the informality of post-Elvis America. And he does it without altering his clothes. In fact, there's only one costume change in the whole show.

But there's much more going on here than an impressive acting turn. The fact that Nelson plays both Wright and Charlotte forces us to consider that the American, too, might compromise with evil under the pressure of threats and with the truth under the pressure of memory. The fact that Nelson plays an entire spectrum of characters--from the U.S. News & Report journalist who introduces his friend Wright to Charlotte to the various relatives, friends, lovers, and enemies of Charlotte's Berlin demimonde--suggests that he might as well be playing anyone in the audience.

As a result, I Am My Own Wife undermines the fantasy at the root of so much Holocaust and Gulag art. Most plays, movies, and novels about the Nazis and Stalinists feature a courageous resister that we can identify with, so we can believe that we, too, would stand up under torture and repression, and never compromise. This is a comforting thought when our actual lives are filled with compromise every day. But here comes Charlotte von Mahlsdorf to demonstrate just how easy it is for a vivacious, likable person to compromise--even if it's a matter of standing up a lover for a chance to buy an antique clock.

Wright, the playwright, is not a genius of language in the way August Wilson or Sam Shepard, say, have been. But Wright is a genius of structure, and he uses the framework of a researcher's interviews to make us identify with first Charlotte and then Wright the character. And when Charlotte turns out to be someone other than what we'd assumed, the result is one of the best evenings of theater Baltimore will enjoy this year.

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Tags: doug wright, everyman theatre

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